American Idols: Robert Rauschenberg at MoMA

Friday, June 23, 2017

Critics have long viewed Robert Rauschenberg with suspicion. His detractors will say that he was a phony, and that all of the work that his half-baked conceptualism and technique-free found art inspired was garbage. This is not entirely unfair. Rauschenberg did little to dispel the aura of pretentiousness around himself. Look at his statement about his work: “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two).” What is that supposed to mean?

But even if Rauschenberg reveled in his own obscurity, something about that obscurity was quite powerful. As “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” a new retrospective at MoMA shows, his work was frequently quite spiritual, and had a deep reverence for the art of the past. No, really!

Rauschenberg was concerned less with the style of older art and more with the intent behind it. His work came from a place of deliberate uncertainty about the world, confusedly jumbling the natural and man-made in pieces he called “combines” for the way they mixed painting with sculpture and artistry with found objects. Monogram, which features a taxidermied goat mounted to a canvas with a tire around its waist, is the most acclaimed of these works. It’s self-evidently ridiculous, but something about its obscurity is hard to dismiss.

It’s one of many equally enigmatic pieces in the exhibition, among them Gift For Apollo, a door on wheels chained to a bucket; Canyon, an abstract canvas with a pillow and an eagle hanging from it; and Pail for Ganymede, a metal box topped by a retractable tin can controlled by a crank on the side. Although they seem slapdash, these pieces are indebted to millennia-old ideas and techniques. Pail for Ganymede is the most obvious in this regard. Its structure is reminiscent of a herm, a block of stone with a man’s head on top and a penis on its side that was left on ancient Greek roads for good luck. The less easily deciphered pieces mine similar terrain: with their pagan names and their fascination with the animal and the sexual, they too feel like idols taken from some modern-day mysteries cult.

Most striking in this regard is the later work Mud Muse. A large tub of bentonite sludge hooked up to a sound system that causes it to bubble periodically, it’s reminiscent of the sort of natural sites that inspired fear and devotion in early man, and, with its evocative name, hints toward an animistic belief in earth goddesses predating even the Greeks and Romans. Where Rauschenberg’s other works feel like idols, this is the real thing—divinity itself.

Rauschenberg wasn’t alone in his interest in the divine. Much of what is so admirable about these pieces comes from his friendship with the composer and philosopher John Cage. Cage’s presence is mostly felt in this exhibition as one of Rauschenberg’s most visible collaborators. Automobile Tire Print, from 1953, features the treadmarks of a car Cage drove over twenty-sheets of typewriter paper. “I know he put the paint on the tires,” wrote Cage. “And he unrolled the paper on the city street. But which one of us drove the car?”

But he was also one of Rauschenberg’s most important artistic influences. Like Rauschenberg, Cage was fascinated by the spiritual power of art, burrowing deeply into Eastern religious thought through writers like D.T. Suzuki and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. In his book The Music of John Cage, musicologist James Pritchett talks about the role that Coomaraswamy played in shaping the composer’s worldview. “Coomaraswamy presents art as the contemplation of the absolute—a sort of Yoga,” he says. “He stresses that the forms and images the artist draws upon exist eternally ‘in God,’ so that the complete identification with them, either by the artist or the observer, is a form of mystic experience.”

This idea, along with the “forms and images” that he got from Taoism and Buddhism, inspired much of Cage’s most important work. Through the influence of the I Ching, the Chinese divination text predicated on random numbers, Cage developed techniques that left major elements of composition and performance to chance. From his studies in Zen Buddhism, Cage created 4’33”, his famous work that forces audiences to contemplate their surroundings and themselves over four minutes and thirty-three seconds of unbroken silence. Rauschenberg works like Portrait of Iris Clert (a telegram reading, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so”) and Erased De Kooning Drawing (a drawing in pencil that Willem De Kooning had given Rauschenberg for the express purpose of erasing) are indebted to Cage’s work. Like them, they force their viewers to confront their existence and surroundings, and find spirituality in the process. It was an influence that went two ways. 4’33” was inspired not just by Zen, but by a group of all-white canvases Rauschenberg produced as a student at Black Mountain College. As Cage said in 1982, “what pushed me into it was not guts but the example of Robert Rauschenberg. His white paintings…when I saw those, I said, ‘Oh yes, I must; otherwise I’m lagging, otherwise music is lagging.” 

As the “Among Friends” of the the exhibition’s title suggests, Rauschenberg was part of a scene that welcomed cross-pollination and collaboration. The exhibition includes video of Rauschenberg’s collaborations with Cage and his partner, choreographer Merce Cunningham, as well as paintings by Rauschenberg’s lovers Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns.

But the other artists’ work isn’t displayed for solely historical reasons. They help ground Rauschenberg’s art, and make it seem like more than a post-modern put-on. They make it clear that all of Rauschenberg’s works are offerings—not to God, but to us.

“Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends” runs through September 17.


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